Fidel Castro will soon be on his knees. At least that’s the chatter in Rome, where the Italian press is reporting that Castro is preparing to be readmitted to the Roman Catholic Church when Pope Benedict XVI visits Cuba next month. Speculation over Fidel’s return to the fold went viral after La Repubblica and La Stampa, two of Italy’s most respected dailies, reported that after a career as a committed revolutionary atheist, the ailing octogenerian strongman had seen the light. Castro has lately “come closer to religion and to God,” his daughter, Alina Fernández, told La Repubblica.
The word swept the Christian media. Could the largest living icon of communism really be on the verge of penitence? Though long estranged from her revolutionary dad, Alina Fernández is a devout Catholic and frequent visitor to Rome where she enjoys close contact with the church hierarchy. A well placed source in the Vatican tells The Daily Beast that a private encounter between Castro and Benedict XVI is indeed in the works in which Fidel could receive the Pope’s blessing, although there was no guarantee of absolution or a confession. But the rest may be little more than holy smoke.
When she first heard the “news” of Castro imminent conversion, “I had a good laugh,” says Julia Sweig, a historian with the Council on Foreign Relations and a prominent Cuba scholar. “I was with Fidel in 2010, when he talked about his agnosticism. Yes, during John Paul II’s papacy, he regarded the church as an institution playing a constructive role in Cuban society and culture. But all that was for reasons of state and doesn’t suggest an end-stage conversion.”
“Relations between religion and politics have long been something of an anomaly in Cuba,” says Riordan Roett, a Latin America scholar at Johns Hopkins. “But conversion and absolution? That’s pretty farfetched.” Nor does Brazil’s Frei Betto, a Franciscan friar and close friend of Castro’s, pay much heed to the suggestion that the Cuban revolutionary is ready to bow his head. “In my opinion, he’s an agnostic,” says Betto, whose series of interviews with Castro in the early 80s led to a bestselling book, Fidel and Religion.
So what’s with all the speculation and what really is the state of worship in this patch of the Antilles that many say God forgot? In half a century of hard-line socialism, where Che Guevara upstages the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre as patron saint, relations between the Cuban church and government have often been complicated and turbulent. Whether Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Pentecostal, or follower of the Afro-Cuban spirit religion Santeria, the island’s faithful had to worship on the sly or forget about God altogether if they wished to serve flag and party.
Yes, the odd clergyman threw in with the revolution, like Comandante Guillermo Sardinas, an ordained priest who took part in the uprising against dictator Fulgéncio Batista and won the right to don an olive green uniform. But the church’s attitude soured when Fidel institutionalized communism. It didn’t help that a number of chaplains blessed the insurgents who took part in the failed, CIA-backed Bay of Pigs uprising meant to overthrow Castro in 1961. In 1969, Castro famously cancelled Christmas as a national holiday.
Pope John XXIII is even said to have excommunicated the faithless Cuban dictator, but others argue that Rome never took such drastic action, even in the harsh early years of the revolution. “Some have religious faith, and others have another kind. I’ve always been a man of faith, confidence and optimism,” Fidel told Betto in 1985.
In time, religiosity survived and even flourished in Cuba. A turning point was the papacy of John Paul II, with whom Fidel “had fantastic chemistry”, according to Frei Betto. Outright repression gave way to a tense, but pragmatic coexistence between the clergy and the comandantes. In Betto’s view, the Cuban bishops came to accept that communism had no imminent expiration date, while Havana’s high command realized that revolutionary ardor was no stand-in for matters of the soul.
By 1991, a sweeping political reform cleared the way for religious Cubans to come out of the closet. “Many communists had always been devout but were afraid they would be discriminated if they showed their faith,” José Felipe Carneado, the Communist Party’s head of the Office of Religious Affairs, told Betto.
More recently, negotiations between President Raul Castro and Havana’s archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega Y Alamino, led to the release of scores of political prisoners from Cuban jails in 2010. The archbishop was also instrumental in convincing the government to crack down on attacks by pro-Castro mobs on the Damas de Blanco, a human rights pressure group comprised of wives and mothers of political detainees.
For those familiar with Cuban politics, none of this is especially surprising. Asked once if he were an atheist, Fidel gave a nuanced reply. “Unfortunately, the Jesuits failed to imbue me with the true Christian faith,” Castro told Frei Betto. Men of the cloth leaped on this statement as a ray of light in godless Havana, a kind of backhanded admission by the Cuban dictator that “true Christian” belief does indeed exist.
For a church that is bleeding souls and has been dogged for years by sex scandals, the conversion of the western hemisphere’s ranking tyrant would be joyous news indeed and a trophy of sorts for what many see as a lackluster papacy. To claim that the aging dictator is on the verge of contrition is a leap of faith, however. Still, you have to wonder: what would a Castro confession be like?